May Reading List

This month’s inadvertent theme is “all the British ladies”, as my Top 3 picks (pictured above) are all about British women. There’s the Tudor-era feminist who had to hide her work behind a man’s name, the fictional suffragettes who find themselves at loose ends once they achieve voting parity for women, and the five women whose lives were lost to Victorian-era morals that gave them few options to support themselves and their children. They’re all owed big respect for their work and their sacrifices.

How to Be Alone
Lane Moore
I nabbed this originally thinking it was a book on psychology and self-acceptance, but it turns out Moore is a writer, comedian, and musician who escaped a troubled home riddled with FLEAs (frightening lasting effects of abuse), and is just trying to find healthy relationships, both in terms of friendship and romance, that don’t trigger issues from her past. The writing is slightly too meandering train-of-though for me, but I empathize with Moore’s life situation, although it does feel disingenuous for a writer to claim they have nobody to spend Christmas with and then include hundreds of people in the acknowledgements.

Between Meals: An Appetite For Paris
A. J. Leibling
Leibling, one of the most under-appreciated food writers of the 20th century, spent time in Paris in 1927, 1939, 1944 and again in the 1950s. While his gluttonous (let’s be honest) appetite affected his health, he had such a distinct understanding for food, especially French food, that he must be considered an expert on the subject. This book does spend a lot of time bemoaning lost Parisian restaurants and condemning people, both chefs and diners, who don’t understand French cuisine, but in the 1950s Leibling predicted the end of the world’s love affair with French food before food writers such as Child, Fisher and Beard had any clue it was happening.

Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times
Irshad Manji
I’ve been a fan of Manji since her time in Toronto hosting Queer TV, and this book, while stylistically sometimes hard to get into, delves into how all sides of the political spectrum need to spend more time listening to each other and less time trying to prove they’re right. The book is written as a conversation between Manji and her dog, Lily, and this can sometimes come off as patronizing. Also, in some chapters, the dog talks back (yes, really) and this is weirdly disconcerting, as if two drafts of the manuscript have been pieced together. Still worth reading (and re-reading) though, because Manji offers such a balanced perspective. She’s also got no patience with social justice warriors or folks who proclaim themselves “woke”, which makes this book a winner in my eyes.

Habits of a Happy Brain
Loretta Graziano Breuning
I’m more than a little interested in neuroplasticity and Breuning explores how the brain creates and uses chemicals such as dopamine, seratonin, oxytocin and endorphin, as well as the not so happy chemical of cortisol. The explanations are a little basic, however, and the habits to create bursts of the good chemicals (and be happy) are a bit trite. We’re not happy all the time and are not meant to be, and ours brains create these chemicals anyway, without us do anything special to make more of them.

Social Creature
Tara Isabella Burton
The trope here is one we all know; two friends move in together, one takes over the other’s life. It’s Single White Female, or The Other Typist(see review above). Only in this case, the protagonist is the ultimate anti-hero, and by the end of the book, the reader is unsure who is the most messed up, Lavinia, the rich and manic narcissist, or Louise the roommate who kills her and uses social media to pretend her friend is alive and well in order to live in her house and have access to her bank account and credit cards. This is written in a weird, choppy style that jumps in tone and the author drops so many red herrings that it starts to stink after a while. “And that’s when Louise really fucked up…” Except there’s never any reckoning with the action. A snarky look at New York’s literary/party scene with characters that are maybe too close to caricatures. A fun read, all the same, but a bit of an eye roller.

Shakespeare’s Dark Lady: Amelia Bassano Lanier — The Woman Behind Shakespeare’s Plays
John Hudson
There’s long been speculation that Willy Shakes never wrote a word of any of the plays or poems that bear his name and factual evidence (at the time of his death, he owned no books, no paper, even unused, and no copies of his past works) seems to support this. But who did? John Hudson offers a long, somewhat detailed theory that it was a woman of Jewish Italian descent named Amelia Bassano. Bassano ticks all the boxes in terms of the life experience and knowledge the playwright would have to have had: knew Italian, Hebrew and Latin, knew music and instrument making, knew court life, including many events and in-jokes, knew Denmark and Venetian culture and geography, knew about the military, the law, housewifery, falconry (yes, really), and was a feminist. Hudson even compares stylistic aspects of Bassano’s writing under her own name with that of Shakespeare and believes that the same person wrote the works of both. Oh, and that many of the works are satirical commentary on Christianity. If nothing else, the fact that the person spelled his name differently on all legal documents and that “Shakespeare” would have been a Tudor-era pun for masturbation should give cause for doubt.

Old Baggage
Lissa Evans
This is the prequel to Crooked Heart, although it was written after. By 1928, the original suffragettes were hitting middle age or older and were struggling to find their place in the world as Britain prepared to extend the vote to all women, not just those who owned land or were married. Mattie and Flea (Florrie) live in a world where their former bravery and glory is unappreciated. Taking local girls under their wing in a club centred on Hampstead Heath, the women have a distinct perspective on the changing social climate. This book has been optioned for a TV series by the company run by actors Joanna Scanlon and Vicki Peppardine and I am so excited for this series that I cannot contain my glee. Written more as a series of vignettes than having one major plot arc, I think this will translate to the screen incredibly well.

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
Hallie Rubenhold
Polly, Annie, Eliza, Kate, Mary Jane. Their names have often been forgotten in the 130 years since Jack the Ripper took their lives, especially since the murderer was never caught (recent investigations using modern forensic evidence point to Aaron Kosminski, a Polish barber who lived in Whitechapel and suffered from severe mental health issues, including a violent attitude towards women). Rubenhold stays well away from Ripper speculation, and does not include details of the murders. Instead she uses census data along with inquest documentation to develop pictures of all five women’s lives prior to their deaths, including births, deaths, marriages, siblings, schooling, stints at workhouses, hospitals and sanitariums. She discovers that all women were reasonably well-educated (all could read and write), but that Victorian-era constraints and attitudes towards women put all five victims in situations of poverty where they turned to alcoholism to get through life. The background on Mary Jane Kelly is somewhat spotty, as her real name was unknown (she was supposedly on the run from white slave traders) and so her chapter is based mostly on inquest statements and newspaper interviews with people who knew her. Surprisingly, Rubenhold’s research shows that only two of the women worked as prostitutes, and that all except Kelly were known to “sleep rough”, putting them on the streets, asleep, when they were murdered. An important book that reminds us that our fascination with serial killers often erases the victims, and that women were (and often still are) treated unfairly in the domestic sphere.

Check out all the books I’ve read in 2019 here.

Book Review — The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart
Emily Nunn
Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2017

While it’s generally not recommended to read other reviews of something before writing your own, I was drawn to reviews of The Comfort Food Diaries not for the critique of the writing style or the events depicted, but out of genuine curiosity as to what other readers got out of this book. Because, to me, the main theme was not Nunn’s stated premise of a comfort food road tour and emotional support that she received after her brother’s suicide, descent into alcoholism, and subsequent break-up with her fiancee, but rather an over-arching theme of dysfunctional families, the destruction caused by narcissistic personality disorder, and finding “family” wherever you can. Maybe that can only be seen by someone who is also from a dysfunctional family, but that was a much more prevalent theme for me than Nunn’s search for comfort food.

Nunn is living in Chicago with a man she refers to as The Engineer, along with his daughter (The Princess). She has been made redundant after a great career as a food and features writer. When her closeted gay brother commits suicide, Nunn finds solace in a bottle (or rather a lot of bottles) and has a nervous breakdown of sorts that her partner is not emotionally equipped to handle.

She returns to her family, moving to California to attend the Betty Ford clinic and stay with her sister, but family, despite best intentions, are not always the best people to help and support us, and Nunn finds herself at odds with her sister Elaine once she moves on to stay with other extended family members. This is apparently a typical situation within Nunn’s family with some of her three remaining siblings and divorced parents estranged from someone else at any given point (neither Nunn’s mother or younger sister attend her brother’s funeral, for instance). As the story unfolds, Nunn gives the reader a more nuanced look at her family situation, and I’m happy to award both Nunn’s mother and older sister the official “Piece of Work” award for their head games and narcissism.

All of this leaves Nunn rather more of a mess than she needs to be, and certainly does nothing to help her heal and recover, and much of the book is about her working out feelings towards herself that resonate back to childhood. (Like most auto-biographies, a lot is left unsaid regarding Nunn’s role in the dynamic of these relationships, but I know enough about how narcissists constantly pull the rug out from under the people around them that I can feel real empathy and sympathy for her.)

So wait, where does the food bit come into this? Nunn’s original plan, when she first reached out to friends on Facebook, was to go and visit various friends and relatives, cooking with them and writing about what they consider to be comfort food. And she does do that to some extent, staying with cousins. aunts and uncles, and reconnecting with many friends from her youth, all of whom welcomed her into their homes and lives. One of the key points Nunn discovers is that “comfort food” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and a dish that represents love and caring to one person might bring up terrible memories or distaste for another. This lack of universal agreement reflects the idea that family, the other entity we think of as “comfort” and where we’re most likely to associate food memories, may not be universally accepting either.

There are great-looking recipes throughout, but they feel a bit secondary within this interpretation of the theme, more of a way to avoid the issues Nunn must face on her journey rather than something that enhances it (she admits to avoiding her issues throughout the book), although many of her moments of enlightenment and self-awareness come while cooking and eating the various permutations of southern comfort food she seeks as a form of solace.

I suspect that the rift in Nunn’s family is likely permanent after the publication of this book, but my educated opinion is that she’s probably better off for it. Nunn has found herself and her healing within her family of choice, not her family of birth, and while her journey as an alcoholic and ACON (Adult Child of Narcissists) will always colour her feelings and decisions, the life changes she has made in The Comfort Food Diaries seem like a good base on which to restart her life.

This is a sharp and witty work — Nunn is a great writer — although it leaves a lot unsaid that might have pushed the story in a different direction. At minimum, it will give the reader cause to rethink their ideas of family and comfort and comfort food and how those things interweave throughout the course of a person’s life.

Lucky Dip – Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

Only in Toronto would we stop food getting to the poor because of wads and wads of red tape. Seriously, some 13 years after amalgamation, why do we still have 4 or 5 sets of bylaws on the books? Shouldn’t this have been one of the first things that was actually amalgamated? Meanwhile, poor people living in food deserts don’t get to enjoy the services of a mobile grocery truck because we can’t figure out which set of goddamned rules applies. WTF, people. [Toronto Star]

In the future, breadfruit will be the new potatoes. [Wall Street Journal]

If food bank usage can be considered a bellwether for the shape of the economy, we’re still not doing as well as we’d like. [Globe and Mail]

It’s fairly common knowledge that the UK has higher rates of alcoholism than North America, but who knew that kids were drinking more than the weekly consumption recommendations for adults – on a regular basis? [Telegraph]

Cozy, comforting and good for your diet. Soup has it all. [National Post]

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